The topic of earmarks often comes up in politics, frequently in the context of politicians accusing their opponents of irresponsible spending. Yet the details about earmarks (who is spending how much, and on what) generally are not part of the conversation. This week, the Washington Post released its in-depth investigation, entitled “Capitol Assets,” exploring where lawmakers are directing this money. While the project points to an important problem, expecting any reform to the system in the near future is simply unrealistic.
According to the investigation, 33 members of Congress have directed more than $300 million in earmarks to “dozens of public projects that are next to or within about two miles of the lawmakers’ own property.” Additionally, 16 lawmakers directed funds to “companies, colleges, or community programs where their spouses, children or parents work as salaried employees or serve on boards.”
The piece further notes that under Congress’ ethics rules, this type of spending “is both legal and undisclosed.” The Washington Post put together the series by analyzing public records of holdings of all 535 members of Congress, and then cross-referencing them with “earmarks members had sought for pet projects.”
As the reporters who worked on the series emphasize, the aim of the project is not to label earmarks as “good” or “bad,” but to highlight the utter lack of transparency associated with the spending; to shed light on the fact that these lawmakers have no obligation to reveal where they decide to funnel the money. It is an examination of where public money intersects private interests.
Yet the feedback to the series, which may surprise some, has not all been positive. In a Q&A held with the reporters, several readers found the data to be an unjustified accusation of guilt. One commenter stated: “Members of Congress live within their districts, and accordingly, some of the money they bring home will be spent near their own homes. The same goes with organizations that employ family members in the home district.”
The issue, however, has less to do with the specific instances of spending (much of the money was spent on road and transportation projects), and more to do with emphasizing the inherent flaws of the system. The lack of transparency of a system that spends taxpayer money does deserve scrutiny.
Earmarks have long been controversial, and politicians rarely hesitate to vilify others’ spending — even now, for example, GOP hopeful Mitt Romney is quick to call his opponents “Washington insiders” and remark on their support for earmarks. Granted, Romney has not served in Congress, but he is hardly the first to decry this message. Despite the harsh words, Congress has not been able to pass legislation banning earmarks. It would be naïve to say this is surprising.
Disclosure provisions would be a good start, but the issue, like so many others, needs deep reform. Everyone wants to cut others’ spending, while generally trying to keep the axe from hitting their own. The Washington Post did a huge amount of reporting in an effort to examine the topic. But, as this past year has shown us, Congress will do nothing.
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